Tattoo parlor owner enters guilty plea

Published 1:51 am Wednesday, June 29, 2011

COLUMBUS (AP) — Tattoo parlor-owner Edward Rife had a lucrative side business selling hundreds of pounds of marijuana in Columbus, a second job that federal prosecutors say allowed him to pay $21,500 for a luxury SUV.

But Rife’s guilty plea to drug trafficking and money laundering charges Tuesday might have gone unnoticed had federal investigators not stumbled on another of Rife’s sidelines: buying Ohio State memorabilia from football players or giving them discounts on tattoos for the items.

That discovery triggered an NCAA investigation into the school, led to coach Jim Tressel’s forced resignation, the departure of star quarterback Terrelle Pryor and the suspension of four players for the first five games of the upcoming season and one game for a fifth player.

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The university is still wrestling with the scandal’s fallout, which could include a variety of NCAA penalties.

“Guilty, your honor,” Rife told U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Frost when asked how he wanted to plead to one count of money laundering and one count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute more than 200 pounds of marijuana.

Afterward, attorney Stephen Palmer tried to distance his client from the scandal.

“He was an unfortunate cog in the wheel,” Palmer said after the hearing. “He had no intention of harming anyone in the program.”

Rife, 31, could face a prison sentence of 20 years for money laundering and up to 40 years for drug trafficking but would likely receive much less under federal sentencing rules. Frost did not set a sentencing date and prosecutors say Rife’s cooperation in an ongoing drug-trafficking investigation could determine the length of sentence.

Rife, owner of Fine Line Ink Tattoos and Body Piercings on the west side of Columbus, was allowed to remain free pending his sentencing.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Kelley said the government is not assisting with either the NCAA or Ohio State investigations. He also said there was no evidence Ohio State players were involved in the marijuana operation.

In December, Pryor and four other Ohio State players were found to have received cash and discounted tattoos from Rife in exchange for signed Buckeye memorabilia and championship rings. All were permitted by the NCAA to play in the Buckeyes’ 31-26 victory over Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl, with their five-game suspensions to begin with the first game of the 2011 season. Another player, Jordan Whiting, was suspended for one game.

After the team returned from New Orleans, investigators found that Tressel had learned in April 2010 about the players’ involvement with Rife.

Rife had met with a local attorney and former Ohio State walk-on player, Christopher Cicero, that month to discuss his case but never hired Cicero. Cicero sent Tressel emails detailing the improper benefits, and the two ended up trading a dozen emails on the subject.

Tressel had signed an NCAA compliance form in September saying he had no knowledge of any wrongdoing by athletes. His contract, in addition to NCAA rules, specified that he had to tell his superiors or compliance department about any potential NCAA rules violations.

Tressel, who won a national championship and seven Big Ten titles at Ohio State, resigned May 30. Pryor also has announced he’s leaving Ohio State.

Rife must also forfeit $50,000 in drug proceeds, but if he does that successfully he’ll keep the memorabilia found in his suburban Columbus home. Those include Big Ten championship rings, gold pants pendants, autographed items and parts of football uniforms.

“Investigators could not determine whether the seized Ohio State sports memorabilia had been specifically purchased by Rife with narcotics proceeds,” Robert Bogner, a special agent in the Internal Revenue Service’s criminal investigations unit, testified in court Tuesday.

Bogner said investigators learned of Rife’s drug dealing while investigating a major marijuana and cocaine operation in central Ohio.