LEBANON, Ohio — A 17-year-old high school student accused of being a drug "czar" with six teenage lieutenants admitted Tuesday that he was guilty of the charges against him at his first appearance in juvenile court.
The thin, bespectacled teen had the choice to admit to or deny two felony drug trafficking charges against him in Warren County Juvenile Court in Lebanon. Those options are the juvenile court's version of pleading guilty or not guilty.
Judge Mike Powell warned the teen before he admitted guilt that he could potentially be in prison until he turns 21.
"I want to make sure you understand the significance of admitting to these crimes and the consequences of those admissions," Powell said. "As you sit there right now you're presumed innocent ... You don't have to prove to me that you're not guilty of the charges. Rather, the state has to prove that you are guilty."
Powell told the teen that if he admitted to the crimes, then would be giving up all the rights that come with a trial.
The teen, whom The Associated Press isn't identifying because of his age, responded: "I admit my guilt."
The teen was ordered to remain under house arrest until his sentencing and must submit to random drug screenings.
The Warren County Drug Task Force said the teen was a sort-of captain of a major drug ring based in the Cincinnati area and led by adults.
The teen had six teenage lieutenants, and the group sold as much as $20,000 worth of high-grade homegrown marijuana monthly to high schools students in two affluent Cincinnati-area schools, task force Cmdr. John Burke said.
Seven adults have been arrested in the case and are facing felony charges of marijuana cultivation, possession and trafficking. The 17-year-old and his so-called lieutenants are answering to charges in the juvenile system.
"He is his own little czar over this high school scenario with these lieutenants, but the people above him involved in growing the product are certainly higher up in the food chain," Burke said.
Warren County prosecutor David Fornshell said the teen's demeanor and actions in court showed that he was remorseful.
"I think you saw a certain level of nervousness. You saw someone who was fairly soft-spoken and who did appear to recognize the gravity of what was going on," he said. "Anytime you come in for an initial appearance and admit guilt — you typically don't see something like that happen. That in and of itself shows that he came prepared to accept the consequences of his conduct."
The teen, who wore a crisp blue button-down and khakis, stood up every time he spoke to the judge and addressed him as "your honor."
His mother sat quietly next to him and eyed reporters in the courtroom.
Michael O'Neill, the teen's attorney, declined to say why the team admitted his guilt and declined to answer any further questions.
The teen's next court appearance is set for Aug. 6.
The task force investigated the ring for more than a year before arresting its leaders and bringing charges against the juveniles this month.
Authorities seized more than 600 hydroponically grown marijuana plants with a street value of around $3 million.
They found $6,000 in cash in the teens' bedroom closet.