A Canadian man who pleaded guilty after getting caught off the coast of Oregon with nearly 200 gallons of liquid meth in his sailboat last year has been sentenced to over three years behind bars.
John Philip Stirling, a 66-year-old originally from British Columbia, was handed a 40-month prison sentence and five years supervised release Thursday for possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Oregon announced.
Before learning of his sentence, Stirling told the Portland, Ore., court by video conference he had been threatened by a Colombia drug cartel to make the fateful voyage that led to his arrest, after losing millions of dollars worth of cocaine in an earlier smuggling attempt.
Stirling was arrested after his sailing vessel, the Mandalay, was discovered travelling north near Newport on April 9, 2019. Coast Guard officials stopped Stirling’s boat and came aboard, where they found 28 seven-gallon jugs of liquid meth.
At the time, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said Stirling refused to provide documentation to Coast Guard officials.
“Upon further questioning, Stirling’s speech began to deteriorate and he displayed signs of a possible drug overdose,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
Stirling was later airlifted to hospital for treatment.
According to court documents filed at an April 2019 court appearance, Stirling told nurses he had taken a “large amount” of fentanyl. He also said he was a “drug smuggler” and he didn’t want to go to jail for the rest of his life, according to the documents.
The drug Stirling ingested was later determined to be pentobarbital, a short-term barbiturate that acts as a sedative. Investigators found a duffle bag containing several plastic-wrapped bricks of pentobarbital on Stirling’s boat in addition to the liquid meth.
Officials later learned the drugs had been loaded onto the Mandalay from another vessel in the Sea of Cortez for delivery to Canada.
Stirling pleaded guilty to a single charge of possession with intention to distribute on Jan. 13. Based on how much meth Stirling was caught with, the charge typically carries a minimum sentence of 10 years in federal prison. Prosecutors had asked for seven-and-a-half years behind bars.
Yet Stirling, who has a long history of drug smuggling offences dating back to the 1980s, has had a knack for avoiding serious penalties for his crimes, which he claimed was due to his work as an informant for the RCMP.
Yet his history of escaping prison time ended in October 2011, when Stirling was caught captaining a boat just north of Colombia in the Caribbean Sea. The boat was found to have nearly 400 kilograms of cocaine on board.
This time, the arrest led to charges that stuck, and he was sentenced in 2013 to 90 months in U.S. federal prison after pleading guilty. The sentence was once again below federal guidelines, yet Stirling still launched an unsuccessful appeal.
Stirling’s lawyer told the court Thursday that after his client was released from prison in 2018 and returned to Canada, Stirling was informed he “owed a debt to the Colombian drug cartel as a courier” for having lost the cocaine.
Stirling told the judge he was forced to travel to Colombia, where he was interrogated, beaten and stabbed in the hand while wearing a bag over his head. He said a man named Carlos threatened to kill Stirling’s wife and son unless he didn’t take the job to transport the liquid meth to Canada.
Possible RCMP informant
In an interview with Postmedia in 2002, Stirling said he was enlisted in 1999 by the Hells Angels on Vancouver Island to skipper a boat to Colombia to pick up cocaine for some of its members.
“The next day, the cops came to see me,” he said at the time. “They knew everything and had been following these guys with some kind of special squad.”
Stirling said he was told by RCMP officers to carry through with the operation and several others over the following decade, where he would be arrested yet nearly always escape charges and prison time.
He also claimed he was promised $1 million by the RCMP for his involvement with their investigations, which he was never paid.
RCMP will not confirm whether Stirling had ever been an informant, citing safety concerns. They have also refused to comment on why criminal charges were ever stayed or avoided in past cases.
While being transported by FBI agents to detention in Miami after his arrest in 2011, Stirling remarked “that there was nothing wrong with cocaine trafficking and that the United States should mind its own business,” court documents read.
“He further remarked that if Canada didn’t have such high taxes, (he and the co-accused) could get legitimate jobs,” the documents continued.
Stirling has recently filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Prisons for not doing enough to protect him from contracting COVID-19, arguing his diabetes puts him at greater risk.
He’s also filed a second, handwritten lawsuit seeking $30 million in damages from the Chinese government, who he blames for the pandemic.
With files from Global News’ Rumina Daya