A jury trial began Wednesday to determine whether the "Lancaster Grannies" acted in stubborn defiance of the law or were caught in the web of an overzealous drug enforcement sting in the sale of tiny jars of iodine crystals.
The "grannies"--three sisters plus one grandpa, all in their 60s- -run the oldest feed store in Lancaster. They are accused of failing to properly record sales of iodine crystals, sometimes used in the illegal manufacture of methamphetamine, but also used to treat hoof disease in horses.
They are the first to stand trial under a 1998 law requiring merchants to log detailed information--including driver's license and vehicle license numbers--on all iodine crystal buyers.
Facing up to a year in jail if convicted of misdemeanor charges are Armitta Mae Granicy, 60, and her husband, Robert Roy Granicy, 63, owner-operators of Granicy's Valley Wide Feed. Also charged are Armitta's sisters, Dorothy Jean Manning, 67, and Ramona Ann Beck, 62, who run a gift boutique out of the funky, 40-year-old store on the outskirts of town.
In opening statements in Lancaster Superior Court on Wednesday, prosecutor Robert Sherwood accused the defendants--who have become known as the Granicy Four--of acting out of "good, old-fashioned greed" by allegedly selling thousands of two-ounce jars of the crystals without keeping proper records.
"Armitta Granicy, from the very beginning, said she was not going to comply with the law," Sherwood told the jury.
Defense attorneys said they will argue that the four did all they could to comply with an "insidious, crazy law" that they say forces unqualified private citizens to act as front-line drug informants.
"These are good, churchgoing, law-abiding people, and this hearing is an outrage," attorney Robert Sheahen said. He said investigators allegedly "set them up, snared them and brought this into court."
Iodine crystals, sold by the ounce, have been used for decades to treat hoof disease in horses and to purify stored water. More recently, they have been used to manufacture methamphetamine, a powerful stimulant often associated with violence.
The sale of iodine is not illegal, but a law that went into effect in January 1999 requires merchants to log detailed information on buyers, which can be used by drug enforcement investigators. A task force in 1999 shut down 68 suspected meth labs in the north county area, triple the number of the previous year, according to the state attorney general's office.
Sheriff's drug enforcement investigators cracked down on the Granicy Four a year ago, after they reportedly refused to comply with regulations requiring detailed records. But the proprietors contend they did all they could without putting their lives in jeopardy.
At the opening of the trial at the Antelope Valley Courthouse, Sherwood, a deputy district attorney, said undercover agents on five occasions purchased jars of the crystals while using an alias and were not asked to produce identification, as the law requires.
Defense attorney Alison Bloom said she will show that the law is confusing and that the defendants did not understand what they were supposed to do. She described the feed store as a throwback to a country general store that sells "tackle, books, cards and has a petting zoo."
The four defendants earlier this month turned down a plea agreement that would have dismissed the charges but required them to pay a $500 fine and to stop selling the tiny $16 jars of crystals for two years.
The defendants, "on principle, believe they have done nothing wrong, so it is very hard for them to accept the idea of compromise," Bloom said in an earlier interview.
"They've been on this planet for many years with a clean record, and that's how they want to go to their graves," Bloom said.
Distributors for feed dealers and saddleries say many in California have stopped selling the crystals because they do not want to be bothered with the required record-keeping. Investigators said they cracked down on Granicy's after the shopkeepers repeatedly refused to produce records.
Granicy's sold about 16,000 ounces of iodine crystals in a 15- month period--triple the amount typically sold by similar outlets, according to Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Tom Holeman.
The three sisters were arrested and briefly jailed during a raid in March 2000. Robert "Grandpa" Granicy turned himself in later. The women said they sat barefoot on a concrete bench in a cell, singing church hymns for four hours until deputies released them.
Dozens of supporters in the past have rallied repeatedly behind the four during previous pretrial hearings. But only five demonstrators showed up Wednesday, carrying fluorescent placards and chanting "Free the Grannies" before a single freelance television cameraman.
Protester Betty Maki, 64, of Lancaster commented on the jury selection process, which consumed three days during questioning of 142 potential jurors. "You'd think they killed somebody, with all this bother," she said of the Granicys, from whom she has purchased feed for more than 30 years. "This is a giant waste of taxpayer money."
The family represents five generations of business, community and church leaders. Married in 1958, the Granicys opened the feed store in the 1960s on land purchased by Robert Granicy's parents in 1943. The sisters have lived in Lancaster since the 1950s, when their parents left a family farm in Missouri.
Armitta Granicy, who has led the fight against authorities, maintains that undercover drug enforcement investigators should monitor the store, rather than requiring merchants to record information on possible drug traffickers.
The trial is expected to continue for five days, attorneys said.
[Illustration]Caption: PHOTO: Defendants, from left, Dorothy Jean Manning, Ramona Ann Beck, Armitta Mae Granicy and her husband, Robert Roy Granicy, listen to the remarks of the judge and attorneys at the opening of the trial Wednesday in Lancaster Superior Court.; PHOTOGRAPHER: MYUNG J. CHUN / Los Angeles Times; PHOTO: Heading to court are defendant Ramona Ann Beck, left, lawyer Alison Bloom, and defendants Armitta Mae Granicy and Dorothy Jean Manning.; PHOTOGRAPHER: MYUNG J. CHUN / Los Angeles Times
Credit: TIMES STAFF WRITER
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