How a Missouri Man Could Die in Prison for Weed

How a Missouri Man Could Die in Prison for Weed
Kholood Eid
Jeff Mizanskey has sat behind bars for twenty years. His only hope of getting out is clemency from the governor.

On a dark rural highway, a week before Christmas in 1993, two Hispanic males barreled east through Missouri in a 1978 Mercury Cougar. Stashed in the trunk was nearly 100 pounds of marijuana.

"Since I've been here in prison, I've met lots of people in for murder, rape, robberies, all kinds of violent crimes. I've seen a lot of them go home on parole. Don't I ever get a chance?"

It had taken the men fourteen hours to drive up from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and as Jorge Ibaudo napped in the back seat, Jose Reyes steered toward their final destination — a Super 8 hotel in Sedalia some 40 miles away.

Reyes didn't notice trooper David Schwalm with the Missouri Highway Patrol. That stretch of Highway 50 doesn't get much out-of-state traffic, and something about the car with New Mexico plates seemed suspicious — a hunch Schwalm would confirm moments later when he pulled over the vehicle. Neither Reyes nor Ibaudo could speak much English, but what they did manage to relay — that they were traveling to Sedalia to "meet a friend" — was fishy enough for Schwalm to ask them to pop the trunk. Today the state trooper remains in disbelief about what he saw as he lifted the lid.

"It was like some teenagers tried to do it for the first time," Schwalm says of the bricks of marijuana he easily found tucked under the trunk's carpeting and sloppily stuffed into the rear fender wells.

Back at the Johnson County Sheriff's Department, corporal James Wingo of the highway patrol's narcotics unit sat Reyes and Ibaudo down and offered them a deal: Cooperate with police to nab the buyer, and the prosecutor might go easy on them. Hell, there was even a possibility they'd be let go like it never happened.

Reyes cooperated right away, according to Schwalm, telling the cops that the drugs were destined for a man named Atilano Quintana. A quick call over to the Sedalia Police Department confirmed that Quintana was the real deal.

"Customs was going after Quintana," says Wingo, now a sergeant with the highway patrol. "Customs was investigating him at the time, and [Reyes and Ibaudo] were sources for Quintana, and they were bringing him the weed."

Reyes and Ibaudo were scheduled to meet Quintana at the hotel the next morning. Wingo — now working with the Sedalia police — encouraged them to do so, but only after the cops set up surveillance equipment in the adjoining hotel room. Around 8 a.m. a truck pulled into the Super 8 parking lot and two men exited: Quintana and a skinny white guy with a thick mustache. One of the Sedalia officers recognized the second man as Jeff Mizanskey, a local pothead with two prior arrests for weed who was known to sell a bag every now and then.

Sedalia police didn't know Mizanskey was coming, but they were glad he did.

"Mizanskey wasn't a target or who we expected to be showing up," Wingo recalls. "It was the Quintana guy — that's who [Reyes and Ibaudo] said they were taking the weed to. Mizanskey just sweetened the pot. He was well-known in Pettis County."

The cops watched Quintana and Mizanskey walk into the room. Mizanskey took a seat on a bed as Quintana talked business in Spanish with the two men. None of the Sedalia cops spoke Spanish, but it was not hard to understand what was going down.

To Wingo it looked like Quintana was the one conducting the deal. Mizanskey was there for backup.

"You do a dope deal, you bring your extra hand around," Wingo says. "For lack of a better word, [Mizanskey] was his 'helper,' I guess. They were just part of a conspiracy, and Mizanskey worked for Quintana."

On their video feed the cops witnessed Quintana pass Mizanskey a brick of weed and ask him how much he thought it weighed.

"About three or four," Mizanskey responded, as he handed it back. Minutes later Quintana and Mizanskey walked out of the room and climbed back into the truck. Police would surround the vehicle moments later as it drove away from the hotel.

Twenty years later and Ibaudo's and Reyes' whereabouts are unknown, though the Missouri Highway Patrol confirms that Ibaudo was let go without charges and Reyes spent a year in the county jail. Quintana — the man authorities initially targeted — got a ten-year sentence, did his time and moved back to New Mexico where he died in 2010. As for Jeff Mizanskey, the person who arguably played the most minor role inside the Super 8 that December morning, he got a life term in prison.

Today Mizanskey remains in prison, where he holds the distinction of being the only Missouri inmate serving a life sentence without parole for nonviolent marijuana offenses.

On a recent November morning at the Jefferson City Correctional Center, Jeff Mizanskey shuffles into the empty, florescent-lit visiting room accompanied by a female prison guard.

At the age of 60 Mizanskey walks with a limp and stands a slight five-foot-eight. He carries with him a bit of a paunch and wears the same mustache he did twenty years ago, though the whiskers have long faded to gray. A baseball-size lipoma protrudes out of his left forearm. The benign tumor started out about the size of a nickel fifteen years ago, but prison doctors at the time weren't concerned.

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