RENO, Nev. — It wasn't as surreal as Burning Man itself, but the courtroom banter was a bit unorthodox.
After all, it's not every day a discussion about a plea deal for a pair of so-called "Burners" facing drug charges includes a defense lawyer scolding his client, or a judge playfully accusing a federal prosecutor of being a "killjoy."
Robert Louis Ruenzel II and Lindsey Ann Neverisky, both 31, were looking at five years in prison or more after they were arrested Aug. 27 at the annual counter-culture festival in the desert 120 miles north of Reno. They were in an RV stocked with marijuana, cocaine, psychedelic mushrooms, ecstasy pills and other drugs.
Daniel Bogden, the U.S. Attorney for Nevada, said federal prosecutors wanted to charge the two with felonies.
But without explaining further, Bogden said U.S. Magistrate Judge William Cobb declined to sign a felony warrant "even though the evidence established probable cause that they had committed a felony drug offense."
That gave the pair a chance to consider an offer to plead guilty to a lesser misdemeanor charge of simple possession of a controlled substance — an offer they jumped at because it likely will mean little if any jail time.
But there was a catch.
"I would only request they not be allowed to return to the Burning Man celebration," Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Large said Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Reno.
"Killjoy," Cobb replied in mock criticism. Then he asked Ruenzel if he indeed intended to "abandon the outing and return to Northern California."
"Absolutely, yes," answered Ruenzel, who chugged water from a plastic foam cup and wiped sweat from his brow while standing before the judge.
Next, Ruenzel's own lawyer took him to task, asking the judge to strongly admonish the former culinary school student to make sure he understood how close he was to doing hard time.
"This is one of those moments where he has dodged a major bullet," said Ramon Acosta, a federal public defender.
Ruenzel and Neverisky were among the more than 52,000 people who paid several hundred dollars each for tickets to the weeklong festival of art and free expression that wraps up Labor Day on an ancient lake floor known now as the Black Rock Desert.
At the close of the hearing, Acosta humorously noted that the judge had failed to specifically order that Neverisky too be barred from returning to the festival. Cobb shot back with a smile: "I thought you took her ticket."
Acosta agreed he'd make sure she understood she was supposed to head for home until the Sept. 24 sentencing.
"You came pretty close to being charged with more serious charges," the judge told Neverisky. "Definitely keep your nose clean between now and then."
To which Acosta couldn't help but add: "No pun intended, your honor."