SAN DIEGO — Former Vancouver pastor John Bishop was sentenced to five years in prison on a federal drug-smuggling charge Wednesday in U.S. District Court in San Diego.
As Bishop, 55, entered the courtroom wearing a tan jumpsuit with an orange shirt underneath, he mouthed, “I love you” to his estranged wife Michelle Bishop, and frequently turned toward her during the proceedings.
The founder and former senior pastor of Vancouver’s Living Hope Church gave his “deepest apologies to the United States of America, to this court, to your honor, to my family, to my previous church family in my city that I came from and mostly to my wife.” As he spoke, Michelle Bishop, 55, was in the courtroom, at times wiping tears from her face. Her mother sat with her.
Sentencing began Tuesday in closed court. Wednesday’s session concluded a nearly yearlong process that began when John Bishop was arrested Dec. 11, 2017, by federal officials at the border crossing from Tijuana, Mexico, to the San Diego suburb of San Ysidro, Calif. He was driving a gray 2014 Volkswagen Passat, which contained 105 packages of marijuana concealed in the car’s bumpers, rear seat, dashboard and at least one wheel well.
Chief U.S. District Judge Barry Ted Moskowitz wondered who would even think to stop someone at the border who has a SENTRI pass and is a pastor.
SENTRI, or Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection, is a U.S. Customs and Border Protection program “that allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States.” Applicants must undergo a background check and in-person interview.
Moskowitz said this case was the most bizarre in his more than 30 years on the bench. He noted that Bishop had served in the Air Force, been a pastor, started Living Hope Church on the idea of serving others, helped the poor and set up a foundation to build wells in impoverished countries. His ministry drew thousands to Portland’s Rose Garden arena during a massive Easter service in 2007.
“Somewhere this went awry,” Moskowitz said.
He went on to say Bishop began drinking, abusing prescription drugs, had an affair with someone at Living Hope and was later pushed out of the church. After that, he went to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, to work in the timeshare business but instead began smuggling marijuana.
The story of how the former pastor ended up in federal custody was detailed in a series of Columbian stories published in September, the week before Bishop was supposed to be sentenced. But that sentencing date, which turned into a contested two-day hearing, was postponed in order to give him time to provide another interview to authorities. He was taken into federal custody pending the resolution of his case and has since remained in custody.
New evidence showed he repeatedly had been untruthful with prosecutors and the FBI. Bishop had hoped to receive a reduced prison sentence through the so-called Safety Valve provision, which allows for a sentence below the statutory minimum for certain nonviolent drug offenders with little to no criminal history.
The prosecution, however, learned that Bishop had made many trips across the border running marijuana, and had contemplated transporting Mexican heroin to Vancouver.
On Wednesday, it was also revealed that he had considered violence.
“He reached the bottom, in my opinion, when he considered having (someone) murdered,” Moskowitz said, referring to information contained in sealed court documents. “That is the total opposite of what he was doing helping out the less fortunate. How could he stand for anything if he had someone murdered?”
Bishop claimed in court Wednesday that being in custody has changed his life. Although he fell off track, he said, “My God has never forsaken me” and that his wife was still here for him. (The Bishops legally separated in September.)
“I will do everything I can for the rest of every day I have on this earth, your honor, to bring hope and life into every person I come in contact with and to do good,” Bishop said.
He said that he’s leading a Bible study group with five other prison inmates. Bishop also submitted a letter to the court, which the judge spent about 20 minutes reading. As he did so, Bishop wiped away tears and turned to Michelle Bishop, at one point mouthing, “It’s OK.” John Bishop’s court-appointed attorney, Matthew C. Binninger, read letters from people whose lives had been positively impacted by Bishop.
“It’s a shame that these words don’t mean anything right now, given the fact that the minimum mandatory (sentence) is in place,” Binninger said. “But I certainly am not going to stand here and not comment on what a great man Mr. Bishop has been in the past.”
He acknowledged that all of the good Bishop has done doesn’t change the fact that he broke the law.
“… But to think he is rotten to the core is false. He made a mistake. He’s trying to get back on his way,” the defense attorney said.
If this case hadn’t involved mandatory minimum sentencing, Bishop would have faced between 37 and 46 months in prison. After serving the mandatory five years in prison, he will be on supervised release for four years during which probation officers will monitor him.
“So they can make sure he’s on the high road rather than the road to hell,” Moskowitz said.
The court imposed additional restrictions: Bishop must enter drug and alcohol abuse treatment, as well as submit to regular drug tests. He cannot travel to Mexico and must register all of the vehicles he owns. While the prosecution also recommended a $5,000 fine, the judge did not pursue that.
Binninger argued that the fine “seems a little bit like overkill” because Bishop has been in custody and hasn’t been able to work, and this all started because he fell on hard times. The Bishops filed for bankruptcy in March 2016.
The defense attorney also asked that Bishop be imprisoned in the western region and take part in the Residential Drug Abuse Program, an intensive drug rehabilitation program.
57 border crossings
Bishop initially told law enforcement that he had transported marijuana across the border 15 times since April 2016. But a review of Bishop’s border-crossing records shows he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in the Volkswagen more than 57 times between Jan. 24, 2017, and his arrest in December.
He later told authorities he had smuggled marijuana into the country 18 to 20 times since April 2016, earning $50,000 doing so, according to the prosecution’s sentencing memorandum.
Court filings further allege Michelle Bishop and their son David, 33, were involved in the drug-running and that the Bishops spent the proceeds on things such as cruise vacations and a trip to a Disney theme park. Neither Michelle Bishop nor David Bishop have been charged with a federal crime.
“He believes God sent him on this path that brings him here today, but that is a question of his faith and the court will accept his good faith in believing,” Moskowitz said. “If that is true, then he has a mission still to do. I would suggest to him, though, it’s a mission of doing good and not evil and he needs to open his eyes to see the path of doing good again.”
At the end of the hearing, Bishop’s attorney said his client waived his right to appeal and to attack his sentence and conviction.
“I wish you well and I suggest that you, that if you are a true believer, that you keep your eyes open for the opportunity to do good,” Moskowitz said to Bishop.
He replied: “I will, your honor. Thank you.”
And when the judge said he wanted to hear about Bishop turning his life around and returning to being a person who helps others, Bishop said, “I promise, your honor, you will.”
Michelle Bishop and Binninger left the courthouse immediately after the sentencing without making any comment.