If prison is intended to rehabilitate, as it claims, then advocates for Eric McCauley say the nonviolent, first-time offender has proven he’s done so many times over. Along the way, supporters say he’s made himself and those around him better people.
Still, the Columbia, Missouri native remains in federal prison, with a 2028 release date off in the distance. While striving for an early release, McCauley continues to maintain relationships with his family, including mom Ann and son Ethan, as well as influential advocates that hope to see him free in time for his son’s high school graduation in a few months.
Turning To Cannabis Sales In Times Of Need
Like many others, Eric McCauley got into illicit cannabis to make some money. He first started selling small amounts in high school. In 2000, the high school senior expanded his focus to legal money-making ventures. He purchased property in the area with a business partner. He says the two intended to use the land to open a car lot. While in college, he’d acquire more property, including three duplexes in a housing unit he bought from his business partner. By 2005, the senior in college would withdraw from classes to manage the properties.
Over time, McCauley realized the investments were not what he had projected. He claims to have overpaid on the properties, with the agreement that the extra money paid to the seller would make them joint partners on the car lot venture. That would not come to fruition. Instead, with the papers in his partner’s name, McCauley said the business partner took off one night with revenue from assets sold, never to be seen again. With a year-old baby and no income, McCauley’s back was against the wall.
“At the time, I thought my credit going to crap would be worse than just about anything that could happen,” he said of his options.
Falling on hard times, he turned back to his high school revenue stream: cannabis. “I believed if somebody can go to war and die for their country, or buy a fifth of alcohol or cigarettes, then they should be able to smoke pot,” he explained.
With that as his justification, McCauley bought eight pounds of Mexican-grown pot for roughly $3,500. The operation soon took off.
A Flourishing Operation Undoes Eric McCauley
Unlike high school, McCauley was moving substantial weight to offset the debts and then maintain the revenue stream. It didn’t take long for him to become one of, if not the, largest suppliers in the central Missouri area. By 2007, he found himself in a leadership role. “That made me the guy, I guess, at the top of the totem pole, and the guy you never really want to be,” he said
By then, Eric McCauley was trapped by his ego. He became arrogant and entitled. On February 7, 2007, federal authorities issued a search warrant on his home and a friend’s in Columbia. Feds seized 219 pounds of pot at the friend’s home. They found nothing at McCauley’s. With an indictment looming, McCauley went on the lam for three months as he found a lawyer and was threatened with a Nebbia, or bail source, hearing to disclose the origins of his funds.
Once he turned himself in, McCauley saw the system at work. He claims he fell victim to increased alleged sums trafficked, a tactic many claim Feds used in their cases. Initially prepared to plead guilty to moving hundreds of kilos of cannabis, McCauley discovered he’d be charged for thousands trafficked instead. He wanted to be held accountable for the accurate amount, nothing more. He opposed the sentence, now calling the decision hard-headed, to a degree, with what he would learn during the trial.
In court, Eric McCauley would prove his innocence regarding the thousands of kilos trafficked. However, the judge sentenced him for the thousands of kilos rather than the hundred kilos proven to the jury’s satisfaction.
Advocates for McCauley point out that he is now serving time for an initially acquitted sentence and that his time in prison is longer for contesting the charges rather than pleading out. Ann McCauley was supportive of her son fighting the charges, believing it was the right thing to do. Now she feels guilt for Eric advising him into what she calls a “miscarriage of justice.” Ann stated that Eric was made an example of, with the judge throwing the book at him for not admitting guilt before the jury trial.
McCauley would be sentenced to 23 years for his first offense. “I lost all faith in our justice system that day,” said Ann. “I have no trust in it.”
The Pains Of Prison Affect The Family
Like many in the system, McCauley has been shipped to various prisons, including Texas, Mississippi, Florida and Georgia. On the first day of the 12th year of his sentence, he moved closer to home than ever at Forrest City.
The early years saw Eric McCauley go from a moderate disposition to a concerning one, according to Ann. She recalled a particularly concerning period while at USP Yazoo City in Mississippi, a notoriously violent prison. Eric was eventually involved in an altercation with another inmate. McCauley was put in administrative segregation, locked in a small space unable to call his family, despite being considered the victim of the ordeal. During that time, Ann said Eric’s letters became incoherent and rambling. Whenever they could speak, she’d devote the time to bring his mood up. In time, he’d regain his spirit and health.
All the while, the family felt pain back home. Ethan grew up without his dad around. The two maintain a relationship, but it isn’t the same as having your father home. He recalls kindergarten, the first year his dad was sent away, being particularly difficult.
Ann said she witnessed “great suffering” from her grandson through the years, including being teased. One day, when he was a child, Ethan called Ann hysterically crying about not having his father home. The bullying only got worse as a teenager. “My heart broke most for him,” said Ann.
A Reformed Look On Life With Growing Support
Eric McCauley wishes he were free and with his family, but he also appreciates prison for helping shed the past negative attributes he developed. Through years of studying various religious texts, McCauley developed a spiritual perspective on life.
Cellmate Jake Reagan said McCauley’s peaceful, easy-going approach to life rubbed off on him when they shared living quarters in 2015. Reagan said he had always let the small stuff get to him. Eventually, after the sound of someone chewing or laughing sent him over the edge, McCauley asked why he let things bother him. That question sparked months of long discussions about life, philosophy and spirituality. Reagan called McCauley a bit of a zen master.
“I really took some time to think about what he was saying because this was coming from a guy that, like a duck, let’s everything just roll off his back,” explained Reagan.
The two continued to bond over life as well as art, with McCauley supporting his cellie’s charcoal and graphite art endeavors. Reagan said the John Lennon song “Watching The Wheels” reminded him of McCauley for his ability to sit back and observe the world as it moves. Reagan, who gained his release in early 2021, is now in contact with McCauley and his mom.
In recent months, the McCauley’s were introduced to Katie Sinquefield, board member of cannabis offender advocacy group The Weldon Project, through a family friend. Sinquefield, daughter of investor and philanthropist Rex Sinquefield, is an active proponent of justice reform. She met the family, becoming fond of them all, particularly Ethan and his knowledge for law.
“I even personally encouraged him to go to law school because he seemed to really know a lot about the law having to deal with this for so long,” said Sinquefield. She considers Ann, “one of the sweetest women I’ve ever met.”
With Sinquefield’s support and resources, there is renewed hope for Eric McCauley’s early release. On April 23, 2021, lawyers filed a motion for his compassionate release.