A Superior Court judge gave N.C. State University trustee Ronald Prestage a 30-day suspended sentence Tuesday after the pork and poultry executive pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for trying to carry a loaded handgun into a congressional office building in July.
Prestage, 59, had faced up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.
Three days after he was arrested, though, a federal judge struck down the District of Columbia’s ban on concealed handguns. With the law in turmoil, prosecutors repeatedly postponed his case and then offered him a suspended sentence of 30 days, six months of unsupervised probation and no fine at all, which he accepted.
Prestage, who is president-elect to the National Pork Producers Council, was on a lobbying trip when he was arrested. He said in a telephone interview Tuesday that he hadn’t known that the gun was in his briefcase and that he was deeply sorry.
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“It was just a costly mistake,” he said. “And the most painful part of it for me is the embarrassment that it has caused my family and North Carolina State, and the harm I’ve done to friends and family and colleagues because of me making that careless mistake.”
Security in airports and many public buildings has gotten tighter in recent years, and guns ever more common, leading to an increase in the number of gun owners being arrested after forgetting weapons they had packed away.
A congressional staff member who was arrested in a similar case just days before Prestage received an identical sentence.
Prestage is head of the South Carolina subsidiary of the Clinton-based pork and poultry producer Prestage Farms. He said that he sometimes carries a gun because much of his work takes him to isolated rural areas and that he has had his car and an aircraft tampered with, among other issues.
He said he is keenly aware of where concealed weapons are and are not allowed, and that his permits from South Carolina and Florida for carrying concealed handguns are recognized in reciprocal arrangements with the more than half a dozen states where his business has its operations.
“But I knew nobody has a permit that allows them to carry a gun in the District of Columbia, and I never would intentionally do that,” he said.
Prestage said that he had actually checked the bag, but the gun was a particularly small model designed for easy concealment and was in an ankle holster. Both were black, the inside of the case was black, and the gun had fallen under a divider, so he didn’t see it.
Prestage said he usually kept the gun in his pickup truck and said that he has spent “countless hours” since his arrest trying to figure out why he had put it in the soft-sided briefcase. He thinks it may have been to move it from the truck to the house while his wife used the truck.
He said that when a security X-ray machine operator found the gun, he immediately took responsibility and that he later waived his right to an attorney and answered every question that detectives asked.
The gravity of the situation really hit home, he said, when law enforcement officers took him outside. “When they walked me down the steps of the office building, there was a reporter who yelled, ‘Who did you intend to kill?’
“Well, I didn’t intend to hurt anybody, of course, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, do people think I’m some sort of kook who intended to go in and start shooting the place up?’” he said. “Apparently so.”
Prestage said that even though the law was declared unconstitutional, he pleaded guilty to the charge anyway after prosecutors dropped the charge to a misdemeanor.
“Every month, they postponed the hearing date again, and I don’t know how long that was going to go on,” he said. “I needed to get it behind me.”
He said it was notable that he wasn’t fined, though he had forked over quite a bit in legal costs. And there was the toll of public humiliation.
“Oh, it was long way from free,” he said. “For one thing, it cost me three full months of no sleep.”