Couple accused of growing pot questions official investigation

The couple at the center of a pot growing investigation talks with Jim Kenyon / photo by Andy Wolf

Anthony Rinaldi and his fiance Heather Schmidt say they're in the fight of their lives. They're accused of growing marijuana at the home they own at 409 Temple Street which is on Syracuse's Southside near the Centro bus garage. The charges stem from an investigation into a fire at the two family home on February 4th. Officials have since determined that the blaze was touched off by a light used to grow pot in the attic.

Schmidt and Rinaldi have spent the past 6 months trying to prove their innocence. "It's been really hard. I feel like we lost so much for something we really didn't do." Schmidt told CNY Central's Jim Kenyon. "Our worst nightmare came true." Rinaldi added, "We get charged with a crime we really didn't commit."

Rinaldi and Schmidt are officially charged with unlawful growing of cannabis, a class A misdemeanor. They claim the prosecution's case is tainted because of the way the marijuana was discovered in the burned out attic. It was not found by fire investigators or police, but rather by private investigator Dennis Ware, who went through the building five days later. Ware was hired by Allstate Insurance. He also determined that a lamp, commonly used for to grow plants was the cause of the fire.

"It (the marijuana) could have been up there for 10 years." Rinaldi said. "The day of the fire, they had firefighters taking all these clothes down here and out the window. None of them found a thing, no one asked any questions about marijuana...5 days later it appears right in the middle of the attic just laying there." he said.

Contacted by phone Dennis Ware responded, "They're way out of bounds...I think they know where I found it... I'm a licensed private investigator. When I see evidence of a crime I have to report it."

Chief Assistant District Attorney Rick Trunfio says it's not unusual for evidence to be found by someone other than a police investigator. "We receive evidence through a 3rd party. That does not raise any red flags for us...but certainly chain of custody is always an avenue of attack for defense attorneys and defendants."

Trunfio expects a Judge will hold a hearing to determine if the marijuana would be admissible in a trial.

Rinaldi and Schmidt may also have to defend their credibility if the case goes to trial. While living in Maine several years ago, they faced charges related to cocaine, but Rinaldi says the charges were handled by the courts and they were put on probation at the time. Rinaldi says "all that is behind us now."

The couple moved to Syracuse from Maine in hopes of buying properties here and flipping them for a profit. Rinaldi and Schmidt say they've been forced to sell off two other investment properties to hire lawyers and their own fire investigator. In his report, investigator Gary Hauf determined that the fire was actually caused by "damage to wiring found in the attic" most likely caused by rodents which were also found dead in the attic. Hauf also found the high intensity light "showed little fire damage" and "most likely was not "ON" at the time of the fire. "If we can prove the light didn't cause the fire, then we can prove we weren't growing marijuana." Rinaldi contends.

Trunfio sees it differently. "The real issue is constructive possession, who had access to that 3rd floor attic...cause of the fire is really irrelevant. They can call in an doesn't change the fact marijuana plants were growing on the 3rd floor of the apartment."

Rinaldi and Schmidt are due to appear in court on August 25th.

According to Heather Schmidt, "The bottom line is this didn't happen. We lost our home, and right now we're selling our other two homes for pennies on the dollar. It's not fair. Allstate has put us through so much to basically deny our claim."

What do you think of Rinaldi and Schmidt's ordeal? Should the D.A. be prosecuting them for growing marijuana? Should growing marijuana even be a crime? Leave your comments below.