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Three people with varying degrees of involvement in a Missoula methamphetamine operation were each sentenced Wednesday to several years in federal prison.

Two of the three, David Toro Chase and Ronnie Joseph Staber, told U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy they intended to appeal. Their private attorneys also told the judge they will ask to be removed from the cases so their now-indigent clients can get federal public defenders.

The men's appeals will likely be based on the judge's denial of motions to suppress evidence. They may also appeal their sentences.

Molloy sentenced Chase to a total of 17 years and four months in prison. He must also pay restitution for lab cleanup costs.

Chase pleaded guilty in September to two counts of conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine and one count of possession of an illegal sawed-off shotgun.

Ronnie Staber was sentenced to four years in prison and restitution for his guilty plea to a single count of conspiracy to manufacture meth.

The third person, Staber's younger sister, Rebecca, received three years and one month in prison, as well as restitution, for "maintaining a premises used to manufacture methamphetamine."

The Missoula High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area team, acting on a tip, raided a methamphetamine lab at 2013 Mount Ave. in February 2003. The lab was in the bedroom of a house rented by Rebecca Staber, who lived there with Chase and her brother.

In addition to the lab, drugs and chemicals commonly used to cook meth, officers found a sawed-off shotgun on a ledge above the bedroom door. A loaded .40-caliber pistol was also found on a shelf in the bedroom.

Ronnie Staber and Chase were in the house when the officers arrived, according to state court documents filed after their arrest (the state charges have since been dropped). Staber was arrested without incident, but Chase was found trying to escape out the bedroom window and fought with the officers when they tried to arrest him.

Chase was also involved in another drug manufacturing operation at 9555 Inspiration Drive, northwest of Missoula, in 2001.

During his sentencing Wednesday, Chase told the judge he hopes to use his time in prison to make himself "a better man."

"I wish I hadn't done it, not only because I'm sitting here today, but because it's against the law and it took me away from my family," he said.

He also apologized to his mother, who is now caring for his children; and Rebecca Staber, his girlfriend at the time, "for getting her into this."

Referring to the weapons found in the bedroom, assistant U.S. Attorney Josh Van de Wetering told the judge, "We're lucky this wasn't a homicide." And, he noted, Chase had several chances over the years to get himself cleaned up - and didn't.

"He is not simply an addict," Van de Wetering said, adding that Chase was running a meth lab "armed to the teeth."

Ronnie Staber did not speak on his own behalf. His attorney, Richard Buley, told Molloy that Staber is "basically a very good person" who made some very bad decisions. He conceded that his client had been in trouble in the past, mostly for marijuana.

But Buley also noted Staber's minor role in the operation, buying over-the-counter cold medicine used in making meth in exchange for the small quantities of the drug for personal use.

Molloy said he finds it "astounding" that it takes a lengthy federal prison term to get people to realize they need to make changes in their lives.

"You had lots of opportunities along the way to get the message, and you didn't take it," he told Ronnie Staber.

In Rebecca Staber's case, Molloy questioned how she got involved in the first place. She was young, a good student with a scholarship at the University of Montana - "and then, boom!" he said.

"It's beyond my imagination."

For her own part, Rebecca Staber said she won't let this one episode define the rest of her life.

She had prepared a statement for the judge, which her attorney read for her when she choked up and couldn't read it herself. In it, she said she was thankful for the people who have offered her help in the past several months and has taken this opportunity to "begin working on myself."

Rebecca Staber, who has been living with a third-party custodian, will be allowed to check herself into the prison once it is decided where she will go.

In addition to prison sentences and restitution, the judge sentenced all three defendants to three years of supervised release once they leave prison. He also recommended that each of them take advantage of a 500-hour drug treatment program offered to qualifying federal prisoners.

Reporter Ericka Schenck Smith can be reached at 523-5259 or at esmith@missoulian.com.

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