Ithaca, N.Y. — On Oct. 31, 2012, the guitarist for one of Ithaca’s most popular bands held a Halloween party at his house on Warren Road.
After the party, he was resting in bed, watching Netflix, when the police knocked on his door.
A year and a half later, the Gunpoets’ Eliot Rich is now a convicted felon. Earlier this year, he was found guilty of possessing more than 16 ounces of marijuana in his home and given a conditional discharge.
Rich said his troubles with the law haven’t hurt the seven-member hip-hop fusion band. The Gunpoets are still one of Ithaca’s most popular acts, still book gigs elsewhere in New York, and are still free to play out-of-state.
Instead of ostracizing him, Rich said, the drug charges have revealed the depth and breadth of support for the Gunpoets across town.
Although he does not face either prison time or probation in connection with the arrest, Rich continues to appeal his sentence on the grounds that his house was illegally searched.
But without the Gunpoets’ huge fan base, Rich believes, he would have never been able to assert his legal rights. More than 126 people have donated $5,520 to help him pay attorneys’ fees.
“If I wasn’t able to raise the funds to fight the charges, I wouldn’t fight them. I couldn’t fight them,” Rich said.
“This community has my back.”
A stabbing, and a search
Early in the morning after Rich’s party, Tompkins County sheriff’s deputies responded to an assault reported near Rich’s home.
A victim was found slumped in a doorway of 404 Warren Road, “covered in blood,” according to court documents. (Three men were arrested in connection with the stabbing and assault, but they were never indicted.)
When the police arrived at Rich’s house sometime later that night, they brought him to the sheriff’s office for questioning.
Rich’s attorneys note in court documents that his house is at 358 Warren Road, while the victim was found bloodied outside 404 Warren Road. 404 Warren Road is about 400 feet from 358 Warren Road.
After Rich told the officers he knew nothing about the assault, deputies kept him there while the obtained a search warrant and searched his house.
For a search of a house to be legal, authorities need to show probable cause that the items they are looking for may be located in the house. Rich said that probable cause did not exist in his case.
Rich said he was not aware that a fight had happened and added that he was only acquainted with one person involved.
“They were looking for a bloody knife, they were looking for a pistol, they were looking for a croquet mallet, they were looking for various articles of clothing,” Rich said. “They were never going to find that stuff in my house, and they never did.”
Rich said he had the 16 ounces of marijuana for personal use, and said he was not dealing drugs.
Rich said he remained at the sheriff’s office that day from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. When police returned from the search, they notified Rich that they had found a marijuana plant and Psilocin, psychedelic mushrooms, in his house.
They let him return home to await his indictment.
– Band of brothers
After his arrest, Rich decided to share the news with his friends, his family, his employer, and his bandmates in the Gunpoets.
Gunpoets’ bassist Michael Wu loaned Rich a few thousand dollars for his initial legal fees.
“We’re friends before bandmates, so we supported him as friends would,” Wu said.
Josh Higgins, a vocalist for the Gunpoets, has known Rich for at least 20 years, and said their friendship helped them get through the legal struggle.
“It wasn’t something where we pulled together suddenly,” Higgins said. “We have always been pulled together.”
Still, Rich said he worried at times about the future of the Gunpoets.
“There were lots of questions with the band, like, ‘Will I be able to do this and participate?’ But those guys, we’re all like brothers, so they supported me no matter what,” Rich said.
– Legal costs mount
Rich was indicted in Tompkins County Court on April 17, 2013, on charges of criminal possession of marijuana in the second degree and criminal possession of a controlled substance in the seventh degree.
According to Rich’s attorney Luke Fenchel, the felony drug charge carried a possible prison sentence or five-years of probation, as well as thousands of dollars in fines and court costs.
Prison or probation could have caused him to lose his job and leave the Gunpoets, Rich wrote in a post on gofundme.com.
For the initial $6,000 retainer payment to Fenchel and another attorney, he sold off most of his music gear in a yard sale. He has not been allowed to bartend, his normal day job, because of the charges.
“I had to borrow from friends and sell many of my possessions, including most of my studio gear, instruments, tools…,” Rich said in a video appealing for support.
The financial difficulties mounted. After paying the $6,000 retainer, Rich and his lawyers moved forward with an appeal. But that required an additional $5,000 in legal fees.
– Fans rally
To raise the new $5,000 in legal fees, Rich turned to the public. The community response was almost instantaneous.
Within five days, 126 donors had given Rich over $5,000, covering the remainder of his fees to Holmberg Galbraith, LLP.
“I think the community knows I’m not a criminal,” Rich said. “I’ve been a member of the community for my entire life.
Rich returned to court for sentencing on May 23.
Instead of prison time or probation, Judge John Rowley placed Rich on a term of conditional discharge for three years.
Along with it, Rich was sentenced to 40 hours of community service and to pay $875 in fees to the court. Rich did not face a six-month suspension of his driver’s license, a punishment that is usually mandatory for felony convictions.
When Rich got home from the sentencing, he recorded a video to share with those who had donated to help him.
“I am now a convicted felon,” the guitarist says in the video with a soft laugh. “Actually, things could’ve been a whole lot worse.”