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  Police Arrest Priest in Norton Drug Raid
Pastor Charged with Cultivating Marijuana at Rectory. Second Man Accused of Trafficking 35 Plants Seized

By Gina Mace and Colette M. Jenkins
Akron Beacon Journal [Ohio]
January 23, 2004

The three books confiscated by Norton police seemed out of place in the private office of a Catholic priest.

Opium for the Masses. Marijuana Growers Guide. Marijuana Medicine.

But police said what was going on in the Prince of Peace Catholic Church rectory had little to do with church business.

Following a search of the residence and office of the Rev. Richard A. Arko, Norton police announced Thursday they had arrested the 40-year-old pastor on a charge of illegal cultivation of marijuana.

A second man, Jensen J. Powell, 24, who is unemployed and living at the four-bedroom Shannon Avenue rectory, was charged with trafficking in marijuana. Both are fifth-degree felonies carrying prison sentences of six months to a year.

Police confiscated not only the books but also 35 marijuana plants ranging from 6 inches to 4 feet, grow lights, electric transformers and air purifiers, all from a room that police said was being used to grow marijuana.

According to police, the plants were growing in a second-floor bedroom of the rectory.

Police took two baggies of marijuana and $1,100 in cash from Powell. They allege that Powell was selling marijuana from the residence.

Both men appeared Thursday before Barberton Municipal Judge Michael McNulty.

McNulty released Arko on a signature bond and set a $10,000 cash bond for Powell. The men are due back in court Wednesday.

The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland placed Arko on immediate "leave of absence from priestly ministry," according to a press release from the diocese.

Attorney Peter Cahoon, who represents the priest, told Judge McNulty that in the meantime Arko will be living at a home he owns on West Tuscarawas Avenue in Barberton.

Prince of Peace parish is situated on the Norton-Barberton border, with the church and rectory in Norton at 1263 Shannon Ave., and the parish hall and parking lot in Barberton.

Norton Lt. Thad Hete was reluctant to discuss details of the investigation, such as how he came to suspect Arko of growing marijuana for sale in the rectory.

But he said investigators -- including Barberton police and the Summit County Drug Unit -- were able to connect the plants to Arko.

"We heard whisperings for some time," Hete said. "This wasn't a fishing expedition. What we found in there is what we expected to find."

The arrest, however, came as a surprise to parishioners at Prince of Peace, who describe Arko as a deeply spiritual man.

"I can't believe he would do anything that God wouldn't want him to do," said Anne Goch. "I can't believe he would do anything to break the law or to hurt anybody."

Goch was a member of St. Mary Church in Barberton for more than 70 years.

Arko, who was ordained in 1990, came to St. Mary's in 1994 to serve as administrator.

In 2001, he was assigned as administrator of Sacred Heart in Barberton and served both parishes until they merged July 1, 2002. After the parishes merged, the name was changed to Prince of Peace and Arko became pastor in March 2003.

Betty Spetich converted to Catholicism and joined Sacred Heart about two years ago. She said Arko, who guided her through her religious instruction, was instrumental in her conversion.

"When I first heard Father Arko, I just thought he's a priest I would like to get to know and I would like to join the church under his leadership," Spetich said. "I love Father Arko and we have great faith in him and we'll stand behind him all the way."

Spetich said the parish has enjoyed steady growth under Arko's leadership because he is able to relate to people of all ages.

"He's such a good friend to everyone. He lives out his religion," Spetich said. "He would help anyone in need and everyone loves him -- from the young children to the senior citizens."

Arko, who is also a yogi, has brought new parishioners to the church through Sacred Ground Yoga.

Becki Haller, who attended some of Arko's yoga classes and worked with him on a program for mentally and physically challenged people, attended Arko's arraignment. She described Arko as a dear friend she has known for five or six years.

"He's a friend unconditionally and I want him to know I'll be there," Haller said. "I'll pray things go well for him and he can continue to use all of his gifts and talents to help people."

 
 

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