San Juan: Former NBA player Jose Ortiz was arrested in Puerto Rico after federal agents seized 218 marijuana plants at his house along with 40 rounds of assault-rifle ammunition, the U.S. Attorney's office said on Thursday.
He is accused of possession with intent to distribute marijuana plants and faces a minimum of five years in prison if found guilty, U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodriguez said.
"This should send a message," she said.
The 47-year-old Ortiz, among the best basketball players the island has produced, appeared in court on Thursday and agreed to enter a drug rehabilitation program. He will remain at the undisclosed institution until his next hearing July 26.
Starting on that date, the U.S. Attorney's Office has 30 days to present the case to a grand jury. Defense attorney Hector Ramos said Ortiz is not yet required to enter a plea.
"This office is committed to helping him in any way we can," Ramos said, referring to the Public Defender's Office.
Federal agents on Wednesday raided the home he was renting in the central mountain town of Cayey after a monthlong investigation following a tip Immigration and Customs Enforcement received.
Agents also found numerous documents, including pamphlets on how to cultivate marijuana and a notebook with instructions related to the plants' cultivation, Rodriguez said. Ortiz was at home alone when agents arrived, found the marijuana plants on the first floor and arrested him, according to the affidavit.
"He wasn't aggressive," Rodriguez said. "He cooperated with us."
Agents are still investigating whether other people are involved and how the marijuana was sold and distributed, she said.
Ortiz, 6-foot-10, played at at Oregon State before spending two seasons with the Utah Jazz, the last in 1990. He also played in Spain and Greece and was on the Puerto Rican national team for more than 20 years. He appeared in four Olympics.
"We're talking about one of the three best players in the history of basketball in Puerto Rico," said Henry Neumann, secretary for the Department of Recreation and Sports, and former president of the island's National Superior Basketball League.
"We are extremely pained by what happened," he said. "As a friend, in good times and in bad, we will be here for him."
Ortiz, nicknamed Piculin, opened a basketball program for children in Cayey a year ago, Neumann said.
"For many, throughout the years, Piculin has been an idol, a person to be admired, to be followed," he said. "It is a very, very difficult psychological impact for (the children) to absorb."
Last September, Ortiz denied any links to drugs following allegations made by an entertainment reporter during a radio program, calling them lies in an interview with El Nuevo Dia newspaper.
In 2008, Ortiz unsuccessfully ran as a senatorial candidate for the opposition Popular Democratic Party. Ferdinand Perez, a party member and former vice president of the island's House of Representatives, lamented the arrest.
"I have known Piculin personally for more than a decade as an excellent athlete, a good father and human being," he said. "Without a doubt, I'm surprised by the accusations against him."