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'In a dream still': Man sentenced to 55 years in 2004 released from prison

SANDY — Less than a week removed from spending more than 12 years in federal prison for selling marijuana, Weldon Angelos says one aspect of day-to-day life is completely unrecognizable: his iPhone.

"I want just a flip phone," Angelos told the Deseret News on Friday with a small chuckle. "Or a pager."

The barrage of text messages, calls, photos and videos on his iPhone is just a fraction of what's overwhelming Weldon since he was released from prison Tuesday. He is still getting accustomed to being a free man after believing until Monday that he might spend 55 years behind bars for two $350 marijuana deals he completed with an undercover agent in 2004.

"I'm still kind of shocked," Angelos said. "I feel like I'm in a dream still."

Angelos was 24 years old with three small children in 2004 when he was ordered to serve a minimum-mandatory sentence of 55 years in prison. His crime, which was his first drug offense, was considered enhanced under the law because he had a handgun with him during the marijuana deals that he never brandished or used.

"I didn't believe (that sentence) was possible in America," he said. "I was in denial."

Angelos found himself in a different, much happier kind of denial when he learned Tuesday that the federal judge over his case reduced his sentence and he was free to walk out of the medium-security federal prison near Mendota, California.

"I thought I was being transferred," he said. "They had some clothes for me (and told me) I was being released. … I was just shocked."

Since the time he was sentenced, Angelos' case has attracted criticism of mandatory-minimum sentencing laws. Then-Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson helped organize a rally at the time of Angelos' sentencing opposing the ruling. At the sentencing hearing, Judge Paul Cassell, who presided over Angelos' case, blasted the sentencing guidelines he was forced to abide by under federal law.

Cassell, who is now retired, sent a letter to President Barack Obama in February, petitioning him to commute Angelo's sentence and let him go free. Although the president never commuted Angelos' sentence — his reduced sentence was orchestrated at the U.S. District Court level, though the associated court record is sealed — Angelos gave his thanks Friday to Cassell and others who worked to combat his lengthy prison term.

"I want to thank all the people who helped … especially Judge Cassell," Angelos said, adding that if weren't for Cassell, "I'd probably still be in prison."

Cassell said Friday he was happy for Angelos.

"The Weldon Angelos case was one of the most troubling cases I handled when I was a federal judge," he said. "And so I’m glad to see that justice has finally been served here and the sentence has been shortened to something that is more commensurate with the crime that was committed."

Cassell, however, warned that he believes excessive mandatory-minimum sentences being served across the country "need to be dealt with, not just by an ad-hoc, one-at-a-time … kind of arrangement."

"They need to be dealt with generally across the system," he said.

The retired judge, now a victim rights advocate and University of Utah law professor, shed some light on how he believes Angelo's sentence was ultimately reduced in court.

"My understanding is that the prosecutors have made an arrangement for Weldon Angelos to be released," Cassell said.

For Angelos and his family, life is all about making a new normal after so many years apart from each other.

"Some doors from the past have been closed, but some other doors have been opened," he said.

After being released, Angelos surprised each of his children with the help of his sister, Lisa. He walked into a room, acting deliberately nonchalant, the family said, much to their shock.

"They just attacked me," Angelos said with a grin. "They just tackled me. It was emotional."

Jesse Angelos, one of Weldon's teenage sons, said he was stunned when he laid eyes on his father.

"Everything changed at that moment. … I was really (shaken)," he said. "It felt like he was never going to get out at all."

Anthony Angelos was reunited with his dad just in time for his graduation from West Jordan High School, he said.

"I didn't have that mindset that I'd have my dad there," he said. "We can't make up the years that we lost, but we're going to try to make up what we can."

Contributing: Dave Cawley


Twitter: benlockhartnews