Nearly 16 months after a narcotic task force in downtown Mill Valley and , the trial kicked off Monday in Marin County Superior Court.
But contrary to the weeks immediately after that dramatic March 2011 raid, when law enforcement officials thought they'd made a significant drug bust, the three drug-related felony charges facing McDonald have more to do with him selling fake narcotics. That's because the substances McDonald allegedly sold to an undercover agent tested negative for what they were purported to be, namely methamphetamine and ephedrine, a precursor to meth used in its production.
McDonald faces one count of selling a fake narcotic and two counts of possession phenylpropanolamine with intent to sell knowing that it would be used to make meth.
The trial kicked off Monday with opening statements from both Deputy District Attorney Sean Kensinger and attorney Michael Coffino of the Marin County Public Defender's office.
As McDonald, 71, sat quietly next to Coffino, Kensinger began by outlining the background of the case and related sting operation by special agents with West Contra Costa County Narcotic Enforcement Team (West-Net), a multi-agency narcotic task force.
The case started when Detective Anthony Souza, an undercover WestNET agent entered McDonald's store and bought two ounces of a "white, powdery substance" that the detective believed to be the illegal drug ephedrine, according to Kensinger. The detective later returned to the Pleasure Principle and discussed purchasing up to 8 pounds of the substance, and $16,000 worth of another substance, which Souza thought to be methamphetamine, said Kensinger.
"On March 23, Detective Souza arrived at the shop and asked if the order was ready ... while the defendant (McDonald) collected the bags of white powder the detective asked, 'is that the crank' and the defendant replied 'that's logical,'" said Kensinger.
One of the substances sold by McDonald contained phenylpropalmine but not ephedrine, which is what the detective believed he was buying, said Kensinger. McDonald delivered the non-illegal substances to Souza's truck in leu of the illegal substances the detective believed he was purchasing, Kensinger said.
Coffino responded that McDonald believed he was talking about something different than what detective Souza was discussing and vice versa. McDonald was selling powdered fillers to dilute cocaine, Coffino said, and the two men had a series of misunderstandings about what the substances really were.
Coffino stated that none of the powders in McDonald's shop were illegal to possess, and that the case is based on inference, not evidence.
"McDonald ran his shop for 48 years and during that time he served the peripheral market for drug users," Coffino said. "This may be an unsavory line of work but it's not illegal."
Coffino closed his remarks by stating that the evidence in the case will demonstrate that McDonald had no knowledge of what the large quantity of powders in his shop contained.
In October 2011, McDonald unsuccessfully sought to get access to the personnel files of the undercover narcotics agents who arrested him in an effort to cast doubt on their credibility. Because of the negative test results for the substances seized at McDonald's shop, McDonald had hoped to capitalize on past allegations of corruption involving West-Net officers.
Marin County Superior Court Judge Paul Haakenson, who is presiding over McDonald's trial, wasn’t swayed and denied the motion.
The trial of McDonald, who after a three-month stint during which he said he lost more than 30 pounds because he couldn’t get access to a vegetarian meal, is expected to last more than a week. Souza is scheduled to testify Tuesday.