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'I fell off the way.' A charismatic pastor-turned-marijuana smuggler heads to prison

'I fell off the way.' A charismatic pastor-turned-marijuana smuggler heads to prison
John Lee Bishop, center, charged with importing marijuana, leaves the federal courthouse in San Diego during a hearing Sept. 21. He is joined by his son, David Bishop, and attorney Matthew Binninger. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian)

On Easter Sunday 2007, Pastor John Lee Bishop drew about 15,000 worshipers to a sports arena in Portland, Ore.

With a flair for showmanship, Bishop — a jeans-clad minister sporting a youthful, moppish haircut — relished building buzz around his Living Hope Church, based in Vancouver, Wash., on the north bank of the Columbia River.

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One time, it was bringing a Bengal tiger onstage. Another, according to an account in the Columbian newspaper, it was advertising a sermon series with the word “sex” prominently facing a busy street.

Reaching the masses with the Gospel was his calling, even if it was unconventional.

He wrote two books, with forewords by Saddleback Church founder Rick Warren and evangelist Ruth Graham, and launched nonprofit groups with global reach to help the needy.

His meteoric rise — from a troubled childhood to his time in the Air Force to becoming a promising star in the evangelical Christian world — makes his fall all the more striking.

In short order, he turned to alcohol, had an extramarital affair with his assistant, was ousted from the congregation, abused prescription drugs and escaped to Cabo San Lucas, where, authorities alleged, he began a new career as a marijuana smuggler for a Mexican drug cartel.

Bishop reached bottom, U.S. District Judge Barry T. Moskowitz opined last week, when he considered having a neighbor — described by the FBI as a Hells Angels gang member — killed.

“How could he stand for anything if he had someone murdered?” Moskowitz asked.

Bishop, 55, is back to preaching — in a Bible study class at the Santa Ana Jail. And as he begins to serve a five-year prison sentence, he will have a new opportunity to reach masses.

”Your judgment is what God wants,” a contrite Bishop told the judge before he was sentenced. “I fell off the way. But my God has never forsaken me.”

Bishop was arrested nearly a year ago, on the morning of Dec. 11. He was a regular cross-border traveler, having made the trip 57 times in 2017 in the preapproved SENTRI lanes.

He told the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer at the San Ysidro Port of Entry he had nothing to declare and was headed to Chula Vista, according to a criminal complaint filed against him in federal court in San Diego.

But the officer found marijuana hidden in the wheel well of the gray Volkswagen Jetta. A search revealed 105 packages total — in the bumpers, dashboard and a hidden compartment behind the back seat — weighing 282 pounds, court records state.

Bishop would admit to smuggling marijuana from Mexico into the U.S. as many as 20 times, earning $50,000, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Oleksandra Johnson.

Bishop and his wife had been living in Cabo San Lucas, where they had a vacation home, since being removed from church leadership.

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In an interview this year with his hometown newspaper, the Columbian, he said he had been ministering to people in the Mexican beach town and looking for work when a taxi driver connected him to drug smugglers.

Prosecutors say Bishop’s cellphone records paint a different narrative, one that depicts his wife and son as eager accomplices and puts Bishop in a position of control over the illicit work.

Text messages among the family indicate their adult son, David Bishop, who was also living in Los Cabos, held a position in a cartel operating in the area, according to an FBI analysis.

The two discussed business, but also the possibility of branching off into their own cross-border marijuana venture, according to the FBI report.

Prosecutors say John Lee Bishop’s wife, Michelle, often encouraged his smuggling and was in turn happy to direct how the money he earned was spent, including on a cruise, a Disney trip, schooling and a car.

“Be honest and tell them how the money was acquired.… Just kidding.... We have a house baby,” Bishop texted his wife, according to the FBI’s evidence.

In another message, he allegedly wrote: “Are you happy is the main thing…. Would you have imagined we would be in this place? What a blessing.”

Just days before Bishop’s arrest, his son asked in a text if Bishop still wanted a man “taken care of” and if so, the decision needed to be run up the chain of command, according to the FBI report. The elder Bishop responded by telling his son that he had to “get off the line” and that he would call.

A few days later, the two discussed an apparent murder-for-hire plot against a different man, a Hells Angel who lived nearby. Bishop called the man “a serial killer” who will “continue to stalk us,” and he wanted his son to seek the OK from a cartel leader.

“The best and only option is he is dead.… I want to know. If one, we can have permission. Second what are the consequences to me if any. Three how much cash. Four how soon can it happen. I am not drunk. I am not being stupid. I am and I will do anything to protect my family,” the text read.

Bishop denied his family’s involvement to the Columbian. Neither his wife nor son have been charged criminally. His wife sat in the front row in court and watched as Bishop was sentenced.

Defense attorney Matthew Binninger said Bishop was not a manager of the organization and had merely lost his way.

“He fell off the right track,” he said.

Binninger had fought unsuccessfully to get Bishop a departure from the five-year minimum mandatory prison term that the conviction had called for under federal sentencing laws. Prosecutors argued that a departure was not appropriate because, even though Bishop aided the government after pleading guilty, he remained untruthful about the scope of his illicit activities and the involvement of others.

Davis writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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