COLUMBUS, Ohio - A federal judge handed down a three-year sentence Wednesday to the tattoo parlor owner whose purchase of Ohio State University football memorabilia triggered a far-reaching football scandal and an ongoing NCAA investigation.
But U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Frost found that Edward Rife didn't have the ability to pay a $10,000 fine following his conviction earlier this year on drug trafficking and money laundering charges.
Rife, 31, had asked for leniency, saying previous convictions for assault and forgery occurred several years ago and didn't suggest he was likely to commit future crimes.
Rife, owner of Fine Line Ink Tattoos and Body Piercings on the west side of Columbus, tearfully apologized to his family and friends for his actions.
He said he's had to sell his house, move his daughters, ages 6 and 11, to different schools because of taunts they've received and is currently separated from his wife.
"I know what I did was wrong and I regret it every day," he said. "I never plan on doing anything wrong again."
Rife's conviction for dealing hundreds of pounds of marijuana was not all that different from other drug cases that often come before Frost. But the fact that Rife's actions inadvertently caused upheavals at Ohio State created intense interest in the case.
Frost made it clear he didn't care about the Ohio State connection.
"This is about drugs. This is not about trinkets," Frost said.
"I don't care about trinkets, I don't care about Ohio State, I don't care about the players," Frost said. "I care about the drugs."
Frost said he took into consideration the many letters of support he had received on Rife's behalf and said Rife was different from many other drug defendants.
He also told Rife that while he had sympathy for his family, he had little sympathy for Rife as the source of their ills.
"This is a terrible offense," Frost said. "There's no getting around it."
Even prosecutors seemed sympathetic toward Rife, with Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Kelley telling Frost he didn't know what punishment Rife could receive that would be worse "than what he's already gone through."
Prosecutors alleged that in addition to Rife's tattoo parlor, he had a lucrative side business selling hundreds of pounds of marijuana in Columbus, a second job that federal prosecutors say allowed him to pay $21,500 for a luxury SUV.
In December, Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor and four other Ohio State players were found to have received cash and discounted tattoos from Rife in exchange for signed Buckeye memorabilia and championship rings.
All were permitted by the NCAA to play in the Buckeyes' 31-26 victory over Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl, with their five-game suspensions to begin with the first game of the 2011 season. Another player, Jordan Whiting, was suspended for one game.
After the team returned from New Orleans, investigators found that coach Jim Tressel had learned in April 2010 about the players' involvement with Rife.
Rife had met with Christopher Cicero, a local attorney and former Ohio State walk-on player, that month to discuss his case but never hired Cicero. Cicero sent Tressel emails detailing the improper benefits, and the two ended up trading a dozen emails on the subject.
Tressel had signed an NCAA compliance form in September saying he had no knowledge of any wrongdoing by athletes. His contract, in addition to NCAA rules, specified that he had to tell his superiors or compliance department about any potential NCAA rules violations.
Tressel, who won a national championship and seven Big Ten titles at Ohio State, resigned May 30. Pryor also left Ohio State.
Three people testified in favor of Rife on Wednesday, including a woman who said she'd taken him in as a boy when he was homeless and begging on the street.
A friend, Sean Abbott, said Rife often took him into his house when he was homeless and always cared for him.
After Abbott finished speaking, Frost, laughing, said he had to ask Abbott where he got the Ohio State jersey he was wearing.
"I bought this one from Wal-Mart," Abbott said.
Rife's lawyer, Stephen Palmer, said his client had been wrongly portrayed as the villain behind Ohio State's woes and that people hadn't seen his human side.
"It's been crushing," Palmer said. "He's not just an ugly mug shot as we've seen in the news."
In June, Rife pleaded guilty to one count of money laundering and one count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute more than 200 pounds of marijuana.
Rife has forfeited $50,000 in drug proceeds, but was allowed to keep the memorabilia found in his suburban Columbus home. Those include Big Ten championship rings, gold pants pendants, autographed items and parts of football uniforms.
IRS criminal investigators have said they couldn't determine whether Rife had used drug profits to buy the memorabilia.
The IRS said investigators learned of Rife's drug dealing while probing a major marijuana and cocaine operation in central Ohio.
Kelley said there was no evidence Ohio State players were involved in the marijuana operation.