A Weber County man with ties to the leaders of a Utah County Native American Church charged with peyote distribution struck a plea deal with federal prosecutors Thursday.

Nicholas Stark appeared in U.S. District Court to enter a guilty plea to one count of possessing coca leaves. Sentencing is set for March 27, when a sentence of up to one year in prison could be imposed.

In exchange for his plea, federal prosecutors were willing to dismiss two counts of peyote distribution which Stark faced in relation to charges pending against James and Linda Mooney, founders of the Oklevueha EarthWalks Native American Church of Utah in Benjamin.

Federal officials filed charges against the three last summer after the Mooneys prevailed against state drug possession charges, which were struck down by the Utah Supreme Court.

Stark and the Mooneys were accused of distributing peyote, a hallucinogenic cactus, to members of their church who were not members of a federally recognized tribe. The government allows limited use of peyote for Native American religious ceremonies.

In June 2000, during an investigation related to the Mooneys, police conducted a consensual search of Stark's Ogden home, where they found dried coca leaves. Stark maintained Thursday that he declared them to U.S. customs agents when he brought the leaves from out of the country.

Stark's attorney, Ron Yengich, said in court that there had been a motion to suppress the finding of the leaves as evidence in the case, but that motion has since been dropped in light of the plea.

Federal officials are not saying if Stark has agreed to testify against the Mooneys if the couple goes to trial.

"The plea agreement is sealed," said U.S. Attorney spokeswoman Melodie Rydalch, who said the request to seal the document from public view was made shortly after Stark's plea Thursday.

James "Flaming Eagle" Mooney says his use of peyote is constitutionally protected under religious freedom. However, federal officials take issue with that and claim Mooney cannot prove that he is a member of a federally recognized Native American tribe.


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